Does anyone remember what it was like to be a teenager?
Did you become excited to transition from middle school to high school or were you mortified and overwhelmed by the new social expectations, the clicks, the groups, the harder classes, the choices you had to make and the pressures to succeed?
I remember – like it was only yesterday.
I look back on my own adolescence and see 'my cloak of darkness.' Maybe this is why I very much appreciate what teens are going through. The more I work with adolescents the more I remember what it was like to be 13 going on 30 or 17 and fearful of what will happen next - after high school. Most of all I remember just trying to "be cool!" While simultaneously worried I was going to fail or fall apart.
After working with a group of teenagers just today I realized things have changed so much, for example: technology, the cost of living and the criteria for getting into colleges. However things have changed very little in terms of what our young people have to deal with: peer pressure, bullying and academic stressors at school. During this time of hormonal flux and bodily changes, developmental stages force our young people to feel things they never felt before – in front of everyone. Acne, weight gain, awkward growth spurts, family conflict, academic challenges, dating, sports, band, video gaming, social media and drug experimentation are just some of the challenges teens face.
During adolescent development the brains of teenagers are pruning neural pathways they no longer use while readily reinforcing the ones they do. This is a time for taking risks and also one of the best learning windows, which doesn't always equate 'safety.' Now is the time to help the adolescent in your life find balance: help him or her weigh their decisions, by getting in touch with their honest values and standing up for what they believe in. The brain patterns and neural pathways they develop now and use - will form the 'adult them.' It will serve them in the long-term to be challenged in the right ways. The neural pathways that remain and flourish will be thankful for your precious guidance. During this time of push pull with the adolescent, they may reject your assistance but they are still aware that you are putting yourself out there when you take risks and ask, "What are you up to?" The challenge as parents is to accept the response might not be what we want or think we need. It can feel like a thankless job sometimes and therefore makes it easy to fall into the pattern of being over critical with our teenagers.
Thinking back to when you were a teenager: Do you regret not practicing piano - then forgot how to play by the time you were in your twenties? Or perhaps you gave up something important to you in order to stay in the ‘cool’ crowd. Did a small part of you die with that decision? Teens are under a lot of pressure to make these kinds of decisions every day. They probably cannot imagine their own parents as teenagers also going through similar dilemmas. They probably don't imagine their parents doing anything except being boring old people who tell them what to do all the time. We can help them imagine this by sharing our own stories and assisting them to reflect on what is meaningful to them. Most teens could use a sounding board to bounce ideas off but are potentially afraid to ask. I learned from some astute teens today that sometimes what is most important to an adolescent is also his or her biggest source of stress. If this is what they face every day then they need all the help they can get from all the people that love them to help them cope - with looming future goals and high expectations.
Another thing I learned just today – working with teens – is that self- forgiveness goes a long way.
This is easier said than done of course and each and every one of us could benefit from judging ourselves less; accepting ourselves more for who we are and taking bigger joy in some of our smaller successes. Everything is a process and patience is something a teenager isn't well suited to. They need help to see the bigger picture and need to be reminded that larger goals are a compounded accumulation of smaller goals and every small achievement counts!
I know this is hard to do even for adults. And sometimes life ‘is hard.’ But it is also a choice to live in the moment. Living the way we choose takes courage. Waiting for the end results also takes courage and it is a courageous endeavor not to judge our selves no matter what the outcome. Taking pride in the efforts we put forth is not always the message our children receive. This is a learned skill that doesn't just happen overnight. Teach courage. Teach patience. Dare to fail in the eyes of your teenager especially if the chosen endeavor represents success according to your personal values. Failure takes courage and also paves the way for future success - they are inextricably linked. Preach values over success and try to find out what is important to your teenager and help him or her do the same. I'm sure they have heard, "it is the process not the end result that matters." But how many times have they witnessed this so they can believe it?
Our world today is so 'success oriented' and the definition of process may elude some if they only see success as the accumulation of wealth and material gain. Another parenting challenge is to try not to let the need for monetary success stand in the way of the emotional needs of our children. Demonstrating being in the moment with family and forgetting about achievements for a day can be a refreshing way to reconnect. Take time out for some simple fun. Go for a walk on the beach. Ride a bike together. Go out for ice cream. Reach out to a teen in your life today. Teach them something new or just talk about life. Offer him or her support if they have questions. Forgive that they didn’t do something right or perfect. Ask, "Why do you think that is?" or "What was that like for you?" Give a child or adolescent the refuge of your HEART by just listening – without having something else pending on your time or an, 'agenda' you want to squeeze in.
You will be glad you did!
We all fall into the traps of being busy, rushing against deadlines, squeezing in one more errand or task. Our kids are absorbing what we do more than what we say. Their brains are learning the same patterns we set. They will become us or, 'anti-us' depending on their perceived values. In my opinion the greater goal is to give them the support they need to become, 'them.' Adolescents are receiving judgment as feedback from everywhere in their lives: peers, teachers, parents, the media, etc. Maybe this is training for the "real world?" But when the brain isn't fully developed and won't be until possibly mid twenties to early thirties, we can hardly expect them to respond as adults to all of these demands. And then it might benefit us to ask ourselves, "Are we really coping with all the stressors of adulthood?" What are we really asking of our teenagers today? To be something they are not? The world loads them up with stress and expects them to handle it. Would you want to live in this type of world? Sometimes we don't like what they do and maybe we blame ourselves too much. The trick is - even when we feel we are failing as parents, it is so important to let our adolescents know how much we love them - regardless of whether we love the choices they are making. They will make mistakes, but they are not the mistakes they make. They are learning, growing, confused, intelligent, awkward, sensitive, beautiful, conniving, rebellious, impressionable creatures.
Give him or her a hug today. You will be doubly glad you did!!
by Bonnie Cardell, LMFT
[THIS BLOG FIRT POSTED on June 6th, 2016 at http://marketstreetpsychotherapy.com/blog/hug-a-teen-today/. It has been revised from its original version to reflect the changing or elaborated views of the author.]